"Do Not Resist an Evil Person"

Eric Lee asks how a non-pacifist interprets such Biblical passages as Jesus’ commendation of nonresistance in chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel. Now, not only am I not a biblical scholar, I’m not even a particularly well-versed or frequent reader of Scripture! So, hopefully someone with a real theological education will jump in here.

Nevertheless, bloggers rush in where angels fear to tread, so here goes.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matt. 5: 38-42, NIV)

Now, some have interpreted turning the other cheek to mean simply that we should shrug off casual insult and slander. While there may be something to this interpretation, I agree with those who take the pacifist line that it doesn’t do justice to the radicalness of what Jesus is saying, nor is it borne out by the rest of the passage.

What I would suggest is that what Jesus is saying here is that Christians must renounce retribution, retaliation, and even sticking up for our “rights.” No more looking out for number one. I must surrender even what seems due to me according to justice (“an eye for an eye” is not some barbaric primitive code, but rather the baseline of most systems of justice: you get what’s coming to you).

C.S. Lewis put it better than I ever could:

[I]nsofar as the only relevant factors in the case are an injury to me by my neighbour and a desire on my part to retaliate, then I hold that Christianity commands the absolute mortification of that desire. No quarter whatever is given to the voice within us which says, “He’s done it to me, so I’ll do the same to him.” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, p. 86)

However, along with Lewis I find it difficult, bordering on impossible, to believe that Jesus’ hearers would’ve taken him to mean that they shouldn’t, e.g. resist someone bent on murder:

Does anyone suppose that Our Lord’s hearers understood Him to mean that if a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and let him get his victim?

What’s key here is the distinction between retribution or revenge and restraining someone bent on doing evil (even, as a last resort, to the point of killing them).

I think this leaves it an open question whether the command not to resist an evil person on our own behalf means even unto our own death. The example of Jesus and the martyrs indicates that this may be what is meant. Or maybe only some are called to that kind of witness.

I’m completely open to correction on whether this is the right interpretation. But I do want to point out that, even if this is right, it’s still a very radical teaching (not for nothing has it been considered one of Jesus’ “hard sayings”).

For instance, imagine what the foreign policy of a people who had given up on seeking retribution or even looking out for their own “interests” would look like. Or what our individual lives would look like if we gave to everyone who asked of us! Or if we refused to stick up for our rights in court when someone wanted to sue us!

In any event, that’s my rather tentative take.

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8 thoughts on “"Do Not Resist an Evil Person"”

  1. I think that Walter Wink’s exegesis of turn the other cheek and the other hard sayings of the Sermon on the Mount is pretty convincing. It leads to a kind of robust pacifism like that which MLK and Gandhi embodied in their respective campaigns.

  2. Wink’s exegesis is interesting and more or less on target, imho. I think he reads the Romans in too much, though. The country was “occupied” by the Romans, but there weren’t soldiers everywhere. There was a small garrison in Jerusalem and one in Galilee probably, and a legion in Caesarea, but Jews in Palestine would not have encountered Romans on a daily basis. The elites implied in this series of sayings were probably Jewish elites as opposed to Roman ones.

    It’s Wink conclusions (which he seems to start with) I might take issue with. I don’t think Jesus was necessarily non-violent. I know I may get the crap flamed out of me for saying that, but his actions in his final week do not nedessarily lead one to belive he was a pacifist. He sparked agressive action in the Temple, and then led what looks like a strategic retreat back across the Jordan to gather followers to return to the temple. Even if his actions were peaceful, in the tense atmosphere of the Temple during a festival, such monkey-business would have been interpreted as threatening.

    But he DID exhibit non-restsistance and a desire to avoid self-defense. He allowed himself to be arrested when he probably knew he had a good chance of being executed or at least punished severely. He even repremanded his disciples when they tried to resist.

    Finally, Wink says, “But how do you get these poor folk to believe it is in their self-interest to abandon their self-interest this way?” The idea of the liberal prometheus reaching down to enlighten the masses in one of the reasons why the progressive movement is failing to make any progress across the board. Most people don’t like being patronized and told by bourgeois elites what their interests are and are not, especially when what they say sounds a lot like “sit down and take it”. Today is the 40th anniversary of the assasination of Malcolm X, and I think a good arguement could be made that the cvil rights movement never really got anywhere until some African-Americans started advocating violent action to take their rights as humans.

  3. Josh – Interesting take. I suppose, though, that it depends on how we define “non-violence.” Even if we see Jesus’ actions in the temple as an act of violence, would he have countenanced killing in the service of his mission?

    On the other hand, if Jesus was a pacifist, is it legitimate to universalize what may have been an ethos suited for Jesus’ particular mission? I think we infer a lot if we say that he categorically ruled out violence for anyone ever. And the fact that most of Christendom has not upheld pacifism as the norm gives me pause. (While it’s certainly possible that Christendom has gotten Jesus really wrong, it does sort of remind me of those Protestants who say that the church fell into apostasy from about the time of Paul til Luther rediscovered the Gospel!)

  4. Lee, first of all, thanks for opening up the discussion on this. (I was gone on a 3-day road trip and wasn’t able to get to a computer for a few days, so I just read your post.)

    Also, thank you for being open in these discussions. As a Christian who is into the whole non-violent thing, I can very much respect your openness to Just War Theory when you approach the issue so humbly. In fact, you do so even more humbly than I do, so you’re teaching me a great deal here.

    Marvin, thanks for that Walter Wink essay. I’ll have to read that soon.

    Moving on, I wanted to respond to Josh’s comment about “He sparked agressive action in the Temple…”. I think too much has been made out of this incident to justify the potential use of violence. This incident must be talked about in light of what was actually going on. Some people have even asked me about what I think about how Jesus broke out a whip and started stirring up violence. Actually, the account of Jesus fashioning a whip is only mentioned in John, and was actually only used to drive out the animals being sold. All three of the other Gospel accounts have this story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple, but in all four accounts, it’s clear that the theme here is that Jesus is angry with the people turning God’s temple into a marketplace. Jesus never gets violent on the people, and even in the account in John where Jesus busts out a whip, he never even hurts the animals (well, at least it doesn’t say so).

    Perhaps then, the question is whether it’s okay to be angry, or is it? All of the accounts never actually describe Jesus as being angry, even though his language shows apparent frustration with what’s going on. And even then, Jesus acknowledges that we are not to be angry with our brother (Matthew 5:21-26), encouraging us to settle matters quickly–, but even then, Ephesians 4:25-28 tells us that if we are angry, not to let the sun go down on our angry.

    I’m no Bible scholar either, but I see these passages and see a theme of being reconciled to each other. Our sinful nature leads us to anger (we’re only human), so I think we are called to quickly settle matters and be reconciled to each other after things happen that incite anger or division amongst us.

    I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m really, really bad at that.

  5. Eric, thanks. And I by no means have a settled view on this – this (seemingly endless) series of posts has been my way of thinking out loud (and hearing the ideas of other people).

  6. Overturning tables is not a peaceful action. Try doing that in the capital building in DC and see how far you get. He didn’t just ask them to leave. He wasn’t just venting either. He may not have injured people in the temple, but he definately damaged property and impacted people’s livelihood. That seems like violence to me or at least strong, aggressive action.
    Around the same time as the cleansing he spoke about the temple being destroyed and rebuilt in three days. His action in the temple should be seen in this context as well. It was a symbolic attack on the temple and to a greater extent, the system that undergrided it, as the parable afterword about the kingdom being given to the tax collectors and prostitues show. It was an act of revolution.
    People didn’t get crucified simply because they simply preach love. They are crucified for being threats to the order of things. Jesus was percieved to be a threat by the Roman authorities. The love he preached was a love that was threatening to the order of things. It was a love that demanded justice and reform, and in some circumstances, agressive action.

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